Houston humidity becomes a unifying force for UH

Sophomore running back Kenneth Farrow took on a bigger leadership role this summer and was named a team captain.  | Justin Tijerina/The Daily Cougar

Sophomore running back Kenneth Farrow took on a bigger leadership role this summer and was named a team captain. | Justin Tijerina/The Daily Cougar

Ask a lineman how the offense will attack an opposing defense, and he’ll probably offer the same cliches that a running back or a receiver would.

“We’re going to take what the defense gives us,” or “All we’re worried about are the players in this locker room,” among a bevy of others. The similar answers are indicative of good media relations coaching, better team leadership and a team that is on the same page on and off the field, coaches and players said.

“I think that shows on the field and in our workout and in our practice,” said sophomore running back Kenneth Farrow. “We all have something to prove, and we’ve had that since the beginning of the season. That’s a mindset and that’s just an attitude of the whole team.”

The Cougars’ improved leadership and teamwork was forged in the crucible of Houston’s summer heat, and it has led to a better team.

“It really started in the summer, during workouts — just getting everybody to the point of where (we think) we’re here for each other,” said junior linebacker Derrick Mathews. “Getting everybody like that got us to where we are now.”

The squad had a strong incentive to push each other — it was embarrassed following a 5-7 season in 2011 in which UH was held without a bowl appearance.

The Cougars were going to face tougher competition as they moved to the American Athletic Conference on July 1, so vast improvement was necessary. Now, UH (7-2, 4-1) is preparing to face Louisville for control of second place in the AAC, a position where not many expected the team to be.

It took the players taking a greater responsibility for the success or failure of the team and putting in extra work so a bad season wasn’t repeated.

“During summer workouts, it really tested a lot of people whether you wanted to be here or if you didn’t want to be here,” senior defensive back Zachary McMillian said. “You had guys quitting and walking off the field, like, ‘Wow, I can’t do this.’ And you had guys running after them, saying, ‘You need to get back on this field. We’re doing this as a team.’”

After finishing near the bottom of every major statistical defensive category, the Cougars had a comeback. This season, the defense has forced more than 30 turnovers and gives the team a chance to win each week.

Outside of swapping schemes and simplifying, defensive coordinator David Gibbs helped facilitate the players’ growth by challenging them to be self-motivated.

“Gibbs told us from the first day, ‘This is not our defense; this is y’all’s defense.’ Coaches can’t go out there and play for you, so when you have that mentality and mindset, it doesn’t really matter what they call,” McMillian said.

Though the Cougars shed several talented players — former defenders Phillip Steward and D.J. Hayden to the NFL and star running back Charles Sims, who transferred — other players stepped in to fill the voids that were left after the 13-1 season in 2011.

The Cougars are on their way to a bowl game, and they have the leadership of the players to thank, said senior offensive lineman Rowdy Harper.

“What’s different this year than some of the other years is the leadership that we have from the young guys to the old guys,” Harper said.

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